From the opening dialogue between Willy Loman and his wife Linda it is made abundantly clear that the titular “salesman” of Arthur Miller’s play is an aging, physically and mentally exhausted character. As Death of a Salesman proceeds and the audience is introduced to Willy, that characterization is revealed as completely accurate. Willy Loman is a travelling salesman whose vast territory has slowly and irrevocably drained away his life. In that opening sequence, Linda, his long-suffering but ever-benevolent wife, tells Willy, “You can’t continue this way.”
As Death of a Salesman continues, the cumulative toll the years have taken on this anachronistic figure are repeatedly emphasized. Willy is a dinosaur. Unfortunately, his old boss, “old man Wagner,” has passed and been replaced by the son, Howard. Howard represents a new generation—a generation that does not necessarily respect those who came before and that, occasionally, holds in secret contempt the older generations that paved the way for his own undeserved success. Linda convinces Willy to meet with Howard and request a new position, one that would keep him close to home. Willy is excited about the prospect of not having to be on the road so much and enthusiastically approaches his boss’s office. As he is doing so, Miller has Linda speaking on the phone to their son, Biff, during which conversation she urges her ne’er-do-well offspring to be especially kind to Willy when the two men get together that evening. As Linda describes her husband to Biff, “He’s only a little boat looking for a harbor.”
As act 2 begins, the audience is introduced to Howard, who is in the process of plugging in a “wire-recording machine,” in effect, a newly developed electronic recording device the likes of which is completely alien to those of Willy Loman’s generation. As Willy struggles to secure Howard’s attention for the purpose of requesting a change in his responsibilities, Howard is obsessed with discussing and tinkering with the recording device, including subjecting Willy to the sounds of Howard’s children. As Howard continues to boast about his children while listening to the recording, he explains an interruption as having been caused by the maid, who has apparently accidentally unplugged the recorder, a subtle but telling reminder that Howard rests on a much higher socioeconomic plane than do the Lomans. Howard’s condescending attitude towards, Willy, including addressing his elder as “kid,” further completes the picture of one man’s rise and the other’s decline. Willy’s request is rejected, with Howard excusing himself for a meeting. In Willy’s despondency over Howard’s rejection, he accidentally turns on the recorder and then panics about turning this strange machine off, shouting to the now-returned Howard, “Shut it off! Shut it off!”
The significance of the recorder lies in what it represents: a strange new world to which Willy is ill-adapted. His protestations to Howard about promises made by Howard’s late-father are brushed aside by the younger generation, and Willy’s mechanical ineptitude serves only to reinforce the notion that his time is past—a conclusion to which Willy will come into agreement and result in his decision to kill himself in such a way that will allow for Linda to receive life insurance money.